Some time ago, I was invited by writer and editor Jennifer D. Foster to participate in an interview on how to create a successful short story. Jennifer knew my work as a short story writer and had heard me speak at the Editors Association of Canada. She also knew that I teach the short story form as part of my science fiction course at George Brown College.
Writer’s Digest had asked Jennifer to write two “writing tips” chapters in its highly popular “Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market” (34th Annual Edition, 2015). Years ago I got my start as an author using this helpful market guidebook. Not only did the guide provide hundreds of listings with submission guidelines and current contact information; the guide’s writing tips section was also very helpful. So, I was both pleased and thrilled to be inside the 2015 edition!
As with previous editions, the 2015 edition contained—in addition to current market listings—articles on “Craft and Technique”, “Getting Published”, and “Marketing and Promotion”.
Below, I provide some excerpts of the 8-page chapter in the Craft & Technique Section, entitled “Anatomy of a Successful Short Story.” You can read the whole thing if you get your own copy of the guide, which is very decently priced. While it’s a year old, the advice remains as germane now as it was then. And many of the markets remain relevant too. You can also find the guide in most libraries, which tend to carry the entire Writer’s Digest series of market guides for writers.
Defining the Short Story
“Short stories are perhaps one of the best places for novice writers to start their careers,” wrote Foster in the opening to her article. “They’re not too long and complicated, and they offer the writer a chance to intimately explore a plot, a character, and a theme. Short stories also offer writers the opportunity to hone their craft and actually finish a piece of fiction—a great confidence booster!” Foster was quick to add that you shouldn’t be fooled by their short length compared with a novel—or their assumed simplicity: “Short stories are not necessarily any easier to write than novels or novellas.” I talk more about the significance of short story length in a previous article on this blog: “Know What You’re Writing: Short Story or Long Story?”
Madison Davis at the University of Oklahoma suggested that short stories are “more concentrated … and notable for what they leave out.”
I mentioned that the short story is “a metaphoric event, a moment in time. It’s a single place—a crossroad—compared with the landscape of a novel. Short stories are more about awareness … and have the potential to be far more memorable and disturbing, with the power to enlighten.” Best-selling Canadian author Andrew Pyper suggested that, “a novel is the result of lengthy mulling, while a short story is the rising of an event out of the subconscious.”
Starting the short story in the middle of things “is crucial,” said Davis. “The reader must be thrown into the water immediately. There simply isn’t time or space to wind up.” Steve Woodward, associate editor of Graywolf Press in Minneapolis, Minnesota argued that good first lines are vital: “they can tell you everything you need to know in an instant. Find that right first line, even if it means cutting several pages to get to it, and build outward from there.”
The message—or theme—of the short story is its raison d’être. In How to Write Short Stories, 4th Edition, Sharon Sorenson wrote that, “if you have no message, you have no story.”
I concurred: “Every good story explores a theme. In a short story, it is a single theme told as a ‘statement’ rather than a novel’s ‘argument.’ It’s a ‘close-up’ rather than a novel’s landscape. All story elements reflect the theme.” Susan Hesemeier, instructor at MacEwan University in Edmonton, Alberta, added that the theme must be “limited to one subject or overall message rather than [the] multiple, interconnected themes [found] in a novel.” Margot Livesey, fiction editor of Emerson College’s Ploughshares magazine in Boston, Massachusetts summed it up eloquently: “theme is probably the hardest element to define, but we recognize its absence when we call something an anecdote.”
According to author Louise Boggess, conflict “is the heartbeat of a story.” Conflict expresses internally or externally. Hesemeier wrote that in a short story, “there are fewer conflicts that lead to one climax; in a novel, a series of smaller conflicts and climaxes lead to or connect with a larger overall conflict and climax.”
Publisher Kevin Watson suggested that a great short story, much like a novel, “is presented to the reader in layers, delivered using setting, character, conflict, and dialogue.” At the center of those layers, said Watson, lay the plot, the theme, and the heart of everything that was presented.
Award-winning author Kevin Barry cited William Trevor: “a short story doesn’t need a plot, it just needs a point.” Toronto-based editor and author Andrew J. Borkaowski agreed: “it’s usually a matter of a single word, gesture, or incident and a handful of actions leading up to it.”
Sorenson wrote that, “Believable, motivated characters make or break a story. If readers cannot understand or accept them, nothing else you do matters.” This is because the actions of your characters convey theme.
Novelist and writing instructor at Western University, Terence M. Green concurred. “Character is most important. Make the long chord of understanding and involvement with a character the goal. This is the emotional resonance, the epiphany that is the goal of the best long-lasting fiction.”
Characters and action should interact with the setting,” said Borkowski. She suggested that, “Setting is important as a conveyor of mood or atmosphere, and … has to be rendered succinctly, poetically almost.” Hesemeier added that, “Setting is usually limited to essentials that are necessary to describe the particular moment or that have symbolic significance for the reader’s understanding of the story.”
I further clarified: “A short story’s plot, setting, and character are often portrayed through strong metaphor, the short story writer’s major tool. Metaphor conveys so much more than the surface narrative might suggest; this is because metaphor by its very nature resonates with deeper truths, interpreted individually by members of a culture.”
Point of View
Foster wrote that for Borkowski, it was all about picking a side and sticking with it: “Once you start wanting to explore the inner lives of multiple characters, you’re on your way to something bigger than a short story.” Be mindful how many characters you provide agency and viewpoints to!
Woodward believed that once voice was established, everything else followed. Woodward preferred a solo voice in short story. “Stories are wonderful when concise and focused, often confined to a single narrative voice and to a single moment in time.”
Andrew J. Borkowski suggested that an exceptional short story arose from the intensity of emotion that resonated with the reader: “A great short story leaves you feeling you’ve experienced ten times more than what’s actually described on the page.” I shared a similar view: “The best short story is an elegant thing. It draws you into a singular experience that resonates at a visceral level, like an arrow through the heart; no time to think—just feel. A bad short story misses the heart … and this is why writers who master the short story form are some of the very best authors in the world.”
Excerpted from “Anatomy of a Successful Short Story” by Jennifer D. Foster. In: “Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market” Writer’s Digest Books; 34th Edition (Rachel Randall, editor), 2015. 569 pp.
Available at: Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, and Writer’s Digest Shop.
Douglas Smith’s “Playing the Short Game” is also valuable with great advice for those wishing to market their short stories.
Natural Selection, my short story collection published by Pixl Press in 2013 is available at several bookstores.
“Written with flare and a conscience…Munteanu shines a light on human evolution and how the choices we do or don’t make today, may impact our planet and future generations.”—J.P. McLean, author of The Gift Legacy
“Nina Munteanu is a gifted writer. Each story surprises and delights.”—Allan Stanleigh, co-author of USNA and The Caretakers
Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.